Alison Phillips’ Diary: Why kids must return to school, and the need for diversity in the newsroom

Leading paediatricians have warned that not sending kids back is risking the life chances of a generation.

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The Mirror has launched a campaign to get the UK’s kids back to school full time from September. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has failed to devise a clear plan, show leadership to teachers or inspire confidence in parents and children. Instead, there have been more about-turns than a concentric circle in a GCSE maths paper.

Meanwhile, 1,500 leading paediatricians warn that not sending kids back is risking the life chances of a generation and deepening structural and health inequalities, children are suffering mental health decline and the educational gap between the poorer kids and those from private schools being Zoom-tutored from dawn is widening by the moment.

And, I’ll be honest, I’ve got three kids cooped up at home, driving me up the wall. Home schooling began as an adventure. On day one we completed a fully coloured and annotated chart of the solar system before the Mirror’s morning conference. By week 13, my ten-year-old’s education is simply expanding his vocabulary by binge-watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

The social media problem

A study in the Journal of Psychological Medicine concludes people who get their news from social media are more likely to break lockdown – which explains Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle sightseeing trip (sorry, I mean sight-testing). We know how much Boris Johnson’s chief aide loves Facebook and all its works.

It also explains why Cummings and Johnson seemed utterly bewildered that the rest of the country (most of whom get their news from reputable sources) were so incensed by his actions. Sloshing around in the social media mire of conspiracy theory, uninformed opinion and hysteria, they’d forgotten that many people still choose to build their lives on facts and truth and rules.

Researchers for a study at King’s College London asked people if they believed coronavirus was made in a laboratory, linked to 5G and if death rates were being manipulated. Those who believed the bunkum were significantly more likely to get news from social media. The study concludes: “One wonders how long this state of affairs can be allowed to persist while social media platforms continue to provide a worldwide distribution mechanism for medical misinformation.”

An estimated 70 per cent of all online advertising revenue in the UK goes to Google and Facebook. So I’m guessing this state of affairs will be allowed to persist for a long time to come. Unless our leaders find some global consensus and cajones pretty fast.

Better together

Last year was the first “Britain Talks”. Thousands of people across the country signed up to meet someone with a different life view from theirs to see what they could find in common, in a joint project run by the Mirror and the Express. We may be poles apart politicially, but there’s much we share. 

This year, face-to-face meetings were impossible, so the project has become “Britain Connects”, and people have chatted online. I spent a delightful afternoon talking to Derek, retired and a keen walker, from Redcar. We may not have had much in common politically, but we chatted for hours – and what a lovely man he is. 

Most of the virtual “meet-ups” took place over the brilliant “Great Get Together” weekend of 19-21 June. The event remembers the work of the murdered MP Jo Cox, who said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons: “We have far more in common with each other than things which divide us.” Initially, it felt as if pulling together during the pandemic might heal divisions. Now it seems inequalities highlighted by our death toll, to be followed by recession, could tear us further apart. We have to fight this every way we can.

A long way to go 

Monday was Windrush Day – the anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving at Essex’s Tilbury Docks in 1948 with 1,027 passengers on board. To mark it, the Mirror has run a week of features on what it means to be black in Britain today.

The killing of George Floyd in the US and subsequent global Black Lives Matter demonstrations have made millions of us consider our role in the structures that enable racism to persist. Not only do I have a responsibility to build a newsroom that is diverse and inclusive, but to ensure our readers’ lives are reflected in what they read and that a wide range of experiences and opinions are reported.

The British media has a lot of work to do to improve representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and that includes the Mirror newsroom. We have several BAME columnists and writers – but senior management? Not enough.

Admitting this publicly is difficult. But we’ve got plans for change: to widen the diversity of ethnicity, of thought and experience. Hopefully, being honest about where we are is the first step towards moving beyond it.

Good news for lockdown locks

The next milestone in the unlocking of Britain is 4 July. Pubs, restaurants and cinemas will reopen along with hairdressers. It’s been a long time coming for the nation’s barnets. Independence Day for lockdown locks disasters. My youngest son has been insisting for ages that regardless of any Mirror campaign he wasn’t going anywhere near a classroom until barbers reopen, after my efforts left him resembling a 14th century monk in a West Ham kit. 

My mum has spent the past 13 weeks telling me daily she can’t “do a thing” with her style. Now she is booked in for an inaugural 9am appointment on the morning of 4 July. I have an image of her crawling from a sewer tunnel like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, hauling herself into the salon chair, driven by dreams of a shampoo, set and starting life again. 

Alison Phillips is editor of the Daily Mirror

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football

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